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New Hampshire’s choice: neighborhood schools or the education marketplace

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Here’s how Betsy DeVos describes the vision of public education that we see emerging in New Hampshire:

“The time has expired for ‘reform,’ ” DeVos told the American Federation For Children in May. “We need a transformation – a transformation that will open up America’s closed and antiquated education system. If we really want to help students, then we need to focus everything about education on individual students – funding, supporting and investing in them. Not in buildings; not in systems. It shouldn’t matter where a student learns so long as they are actually learning.”

Our schools lead the country in student achievement and innovation but that commitment to high quality public education for all students seems to be changing. We seem to be on the road to a DeVos-like vision system of publicly-funded individual parental choices.

There are many signs of this at the state board of education and in the Legislature.

Changing the nature of appointed boards

After the August state board meeting, for instance, a constituent called me to ask why Kenneth Gorrell, a school choice advocate and opponent of diversity in our schools, would be appointed to the Professional Standards Board, the committee that advises the board on teacher certification rules. When you do some searching you find that Mr. Gorrell talks of education as the only product that costs more and gets worse; he says that American educators brainwash our kids as totalitarians do; and he characterizes diversity as a weakness compared to the strength he sees in the rugged individualism that helped to build this country. He characterizes support for public education as propaganda in “fealty to one education system.” Mr. Gorrell has no children or experience with public school teachers.

I have to agree with my constituent that it’s hard to see how this voice contributes to the discussion about teacher certification. Mr. Gorrell is, however, a voice for an education marketplace in which our current public schools are one among many choices.

Nurturing issue driven school board candidates

We tend to assume that school board candidates are running to nurture their neighborhood schools as the best possible resource for the community’s kids.  But a growing number of candidates run for other reasons – to reduce the school budget and local property taxes, to oppose local education policies or to advance other political goals.  The board got a window into that local dynamic at its September board meeting.

The board heard an appeal from a dissident member of the Timberlane Regional School Board, and representing Timberlane on the SAU 55 school board as well, Ms. Donna Green. Ms. Green seeks to limit the superintendent’s hiring authority but she doesn’t have the votes for it.   Her appeal asked the state board to override the local school board votes she’d lost.

I’ve never seen this kind of appeal before. By statute the board adjudicates disputes between school boards or between school boards and teachers.  The board also hears appeals in bullying and manifest educational hardship cases.  The state board, however, does not referee disagreements among members of each of New Hampshire’s local school boards. It’s clear why this override of local control would never gain traction in the Legislature.

But, interestingly, as Ms. Green presented her case, Commissioner Edelblut intervened (video here, at 1:21:10) to make her case for her, saying, “just trying to clarify…you’re asking us to set aside [the motion to dismiss the case] on the basis of…etc….” When attorney James O’Shaugnessey explained on behalf of SAU 55 why this case should be dismissed, the Commissioner intervened again (video here, at 1:39:41), saying,  ”I think that there IS a basis [for this appeal to the state board]…etc….”

I’ve never seen this before either. Since the commissioner is not a party to the case being heard, it is probably a violation of due process that would subject objection from the losing party.

For the board, though, the question itself was not a close call.  The vote to dismiss Ms. Green’s appeal was unanimous. But the Commissioner seemed to be making a larger point.

Ms. Green has organized a group called the School District Governance Association of New Hampshire.  Commissioner Edelblut was the keynote speaker at the group’s May 20, 2017 annual meeting.  Ms. Green expressed her appreciation, saying that her organization would “strike at the heart of the ‘Yes Man‚’ culture so prevalent in school districts now.”

Ms. Green’s appeal to the state board, then, was an attempt to further her goal by limiting the superintendent’s authority to administer the SAU.  The commissioner was in strong support and has gone even further, bringing the group forward in department meetings in a role equivalent to that of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

Fitting into the new vision

What does this mean, when the Commissioner elevates voices like those of Mr. Gorrell, concerned about “fealty to one education system,” and Ms. Green, who wants to overturn the “Yes Man culture?” These are familiar voices in the education debate, but now they are part of the new vision the department of education is presenting to the state board.

You hear the same voices in the lead-up to the 2018 legislative session. HB 193, the universal voucher bill, would grant adequacy funding from the state general fund and local property taxes to parents for private education costs. (Here is Reaching Higher NH’s coverage.)

And House Education chair Rick Ladd has submitted LSR 2530 to reopen the Manifest Educational Hardship statute governing the process for reassigning a student to another school if the family feels that there is a hardship at the current school. We can expect discussion of that bill to include an ambitious, wide ranging school choice option such as the one Commissioner Edelblut has proposed to the state board. New statutory language can be expected to, in similar ways, lower the bar for granting a manifest educational hardship reassignment to the point that a school district would be obligated to reassign most anyone who asked. The proposed language will probably include private as well as public schools as reassignment options. And, since the sending school district must pay the full tuition negotiated with the receiving school, funding would come from local property tax revenue as well state adequacy funds, making a revised manifest educational hardship statute a major new school choice mechanism. (More here.)

So the vision emerging at the department of education and in the Legislature is a bigger change than it might appear at first. Our district schools would become just one of the choices in a new education system under which parents would create their own individual school systems a la carte from any vendor – an online software company, a voucher-funded private school or home school, a charter school or a traditional district school.

New Hampshire takes justifiable pride in the way neighbors look after one another in our communities. The future of New Hampshire’s successful public education system would be at risk if we replaced a firm commitment to a fine education for all “our kids” with a fractured marketplace of individual choices leaving each student and her parents on their own.

 


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